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Mixed feelings

Goodbyes are hard. Leaving home ain’t easy, even if it means going back home at the same time.

I cleaned my desk this afternoon. I had been piling paper all year and while I was going through the stacks to see what to throw into recycling bin and what to lug back to Finland with me, I got flashbacks about everything that’s happened in eleven months.

Five papers that I’ve authored or co-authored have been submitted this year and a few more are work in progress. One has already been accepted and should come out any day now. I’ve presented posters at SNEB and ACR conferences, learning about different research and practice perspectives from nutritionists and consumer researchers. We are also developing an application for small, concrete habit changes which aim to change the triggers and cues in the environment. All in all, it’s been a fairly productive year, although many things that were being planned or even started never came to fruition. Perhaps that is a good thing: survival of the fittest ideas. And my resolve to strive to do meaningful and practically useful research has strengthened.

Nevertheless, papers and posters weren’t the things that I was reminiscing. Instead, I formed a mental collage of things that made it possible for me to enjoy working – and living – here. It all comes down to good people and small daily things, interaction and collaboration.

I’ll take with me Adam’s constant encouragement and uplifting quips, Sandra’s infinite patience, Kate’s bubbly energy, Julia’s laughter, Sudy’s smart decisiveness, Aner’s kindness that manifests in so many ways, Drew’s unwavering enthusiasm, and Brian’s radiant warmth and generosity. I’ll also remember those who left before me: Margaret’s resilience, Will’s hands-on attitude, Alyssa’s good-heartedness, our summer interns. Not to mention people I met at Maplewood, improv, Ithaca Health Alliance, Amnesty, Toastmasters, conferences, AIDS Ride, and just generally everywhere at Cornell and Ithaca. Memories of them will stay with me.

To name a few… Charlie, Annie (“yes, and”), Marjaneh, Gulzhan, Javad (richness and beauty of Persian and Kazak culture), Daniela, Kris, Simone, Alice (the four kindred spirits who I hope to see again in Europe), John (“I’m always good”), Lijin, Yun, Yi, Xiyue, Joanne (great housemates), Jason, Lorraine (newcomers to Cornell, unite), Andrea, Amy, Claire, Rob (healthcare for all), Wayles, Andy, Ute (human rights), Taz, Ron, Cheryl, Ishbel (building confidence), Erin and David (delightfully wacky), two Daniels. Brian and Adam’s families, so lively and accepting. This incredible diversity.

Mindless golf tournament with Adam, Kate and Rex, when I managed sometimes to swing the club fairly well, but only if one of them reminded me about the correct stance. Adam piggybacking me up the stairs after the Dragon Day parade, when I was still on crutches. Road trips, late night talks, and great dinners with Brian. Reading a bedtime story to his daughter. AIDS Ride in perfect weather. Birthday surprise arranged by Kris. Aner’s improv classes and movie nights. Lunch break banter. Hugs and laughs…

I will miss you, guys. Eleven months is just enough time to realize that I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like.

Yet at the same time, I am happy about going home. Being seven hours and over six thousand kilometers away from the person I otherwise share my life with has been tough, and I also long to see my family and friends again (including those who visited this year). What’s more, our group of people at work is equally nice and good-hearted. I could make a similar catalogue of memories about the years I’ve been working at VTT. Wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually.

Coming a full circle – the mix of sad and happy feelings is kind of similar to the ones I had when I came here. I’m happy that I care about people so much that I feel sad about having to leave them. And even if I won’t see some of them again, the connections have been real and left a lasting and overwhelmingly positive impact. I wish I can help others to connect as well.


Somewhere that’s green

This and next week are finals weeks at Cornell and it shows. I went to Mann Library on Tuesday to work (because weather was really warm outside, 18 degrees Celsius, but the basement office heaters didn’t get the memo) and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so crowded. My student friends are also cramming for their exams and working day and night to finish their projects and papers. I’m not completely on the same boat, but I’m sailing on the side… trying to finish as much as I can and living in the present moment.

The environment isn’t entirely stressful, though. I was delighted to see this on Monday – fresh, green grass at the library lobby!

Indoor lawn

Later on I saw people lying on the grass, taking a break to relax. Similar green spot was also in the lobby of Olin Library. Picture might not tell, but it really changes the atmosphere in a small but meaningful way. The deed was done by students from the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.

Perhaps the impact is big because there aren’t very many potted plants around usually. Outside it’s green (it still is, although now it’s finally snowed a little, the kind of snow that melts almost as soon as it hits the ground), but indoors it’s a bit bleak. Green, living, growing things (and I don’t mean slime mold) would lift moods and help people to feel more relaxed. Need more plants, and more skills to keep them alive.

On city level, vertical gardens and vertical forests are also splendid ideas. City planners, ahoy! Cooling the urban heat and absorbing air pollution will be neat benefits in addition to stress relief and provision of food.

Publishing and Outreach

Ah. Apologies for the long hibernation on this blog. Been sick and travelling – had a stomach flu in the beginning of April, visited my beloved snowy, rainy Finland in mid-April, went to Washington DC last weekend and got struck down by a regular flu for the first part of this week. I think I’ve done more than enough sickness for this year, now it’s time to get on with more interesting things!

The trip to Washington DC was about presenting Mindless Eating research to the general public at the Science & Engineering Festival. Brian was invited there by NIH and he asked Alyssa and me to join him. (Alyssa’s interning at the lab, she’s incredibly smart, resourceful and good-hearted, and knows everything about psychology and nutrition already.) We set up a booth with half a dozen activities for people to try out to illustrate research findings in practice – for example, how plate color influences the amount we eat, how 1170-calorie Subway sandwich is perceived as having less calories than 540-calorie Big Mac because of Subway Health Halohow transparent containers and jars make us eat more than opaque ones, and how more variety (colors or types of food) makes us eat more.

Alyssa illustrating the Subway Health Halo with real sandwich specimens.

The booth was amazingly popular and I think that people, kids and adults alike, really left it with an increased understanding of mindless eating traps and how to avoid them. Alyssa’s lively and engaging way of presenting the research was the most important thing in making that happen. I did my best to support her and I had some interesting discussions with people as well. Overall, the experience was great, since it felt like we were managing to educate people in a way that felt interesting to them.

I also learned during the trip that there are only two major challenges that a researcher faces:

  • Get it written. I’m sure we’re all familiar with writer’s block. Nowadays, I’m trying to keep in mind what Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of everything is crap.” Just get something on the paper and hone it afterwards.
  • Get it submitted. At some point the honing needs to stop. Getting over the fear of rejection is hard, but rejection is  a regular and expected thing on the academic playground. Just submit, get it back with comments, revise and resubmit or revise and submit somewhere else.

They actually have an excellent system here at Food & Brand Lab for keeping track of papers and journals. They maintain an Excel sheet with a list of all possibly relevant journals from various fields and a list of all papers with their statuses. For each paper, they work out a priority order for target journals (for instance, 1. Nature, 2. JAMA, 3. Preventive Medicine, … 10. Obscure Journal of Research Not Accepted Anywhere Else). That way, if/when a paper gets rejected, there’s no need to revisit the process of figuring out where to submit it. It can just be submitted to the next journal on the list.

That’s a good process to increase efficiency of the publication pipeline. But it’s not enough to just do research and publish in academic channels. If we want to have societal impact, the real challenge is explaining the research results to the real world so that normal people can understand and use them. That’s also something they do here really well: each published article gets its own outreach page, which explains the results in a not-too-academic manner and has links to all press about the research.

Making sure that the press doesn’t twist the findings into something totally unrecognisable is also good.